The Grand Puzzle Of The Runecarvers

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0947

If you are looking for more puzzles in your game, then RPT GM and Patron Paul Shipley has a great idea for a complex one that uses runes and codes:


I’ve been using a rune puzzle based on dwarf culture. I decided that a suitably trained and skilled runecarver could imbue specific magical properties into rune pairs or triplets, dependent on runes used and their order.

Runecarving is a dying art and much lore has been lost. Many existing rune pairs exist around the dwarf city and mineworkings. Key ones near the centre are well-maintained. Ones further out are often failing or damaged.

Why The Players Care

In my campaign, the party has a strong motive to care about these things: they are apprentice runecarvers and maintainers in a guild whose city is falling apart and under threat. The PCs want to improve their lore knowledge and work out how to use obscure rune combinations to achieve great things (“story-level” magical rituals and the like).

Maintenance and repair of a set of rune pairs was the basic hook for their first delve (and got them exposed to some of the threats).

I used an extended Anglo-Saxon runeset as my base. It’s easy to find good images online for visual aids.

How The Runes Work

The puzzle element comes in a few ways.

Each of the 33 runes has a well-known common meaning. However, depending on context markings, each can have three other meanings as well, all somewhat connected (though sometimes tenuously and metaphysically).

For example, the runes for “ancestor”, can also mean “teacher”, “gods”, or “prophecy” depending on markings.

The context markings are the same for all runes. For example, a double-dot means a rune has its third (“outward”) meaning.

Magical effects are created by combinations of runes that bear some relation to the effect caused. For example, the runes for “goblin knowing” create an alert effect.

Levelling Up

When the characters train at the guild between delves, they can gain increased proficiency in rune carving, rune reading, or scholarship in a subset of the runes.

Depending on how they come upon the runes and what records the guild has given them, they’ve generally been able to puzzle out what the runes are doing. And with their starter set of information, the players have been busy puzzling out the other meanings.

They’ve also learned a ritual to help investigate. All players participate with skill checks or aid another. More complex or powerful rune pairs are harder to figure out so the puzzle scales with level.

They learned the existence and importance of context markings almost straight away, but hadn’t twigged that the markings alter the meaning of the runes until they put some training into scholarship.

My players are loving this metagame so far (one of my players loves ancient languages and studied a bit of Old English; all really enjoy puzzles).

I’ve had to add more and more lore about how the runes work and interact with magic as this starter hook is becoming the main thing they go out for. I’ve also chosen to tie one of the threat fronts much more directly into the rune lore than I had originally planned to pick up on this success!

Two Tips For These Runes In your Campaign

If I had to suggest two tips from this experience for making such a puzzle series an important ongoing part of a campaign:

Provide a method for researching the puzzle at the scene that is fun for all the players and has nuanced outcomes.

In my case, this is the investigate ritual. All players participate, and there are consequences for total and partial successes (nuanced rewards) and failures (nuanced threats and challenges).

Also provide a method for getting better at the puzzle.

In my case, this is the training between delves. This allows the characters to specialize in bits of the puzzle. It also provides a method for raising the curtain inch by inch on how the puzzles work.

Here are two docs.

One that contains the runes & meanings in different positions.

And a set of rituals & feats, some fully developed and some just outlines, using Pathfinder as the base system. Hope this helps!

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Cool puzzle, Paul. I really liked how you integrated it into the game rules and your setting for a complete gameplay experience.

Thanks for sharing!